Week before last I was hosing down the pool deck at the college.
You know the routine. Careful steering of debris toward the drains. Wet feet by the end.
Two home meets coming up and the deck needed some work. Several times I thought of you. Remembered the times, too many to count, that you hosed the pool deck because there were standards to uphold and a tidy, clean pool deck was certainly one of them. Those standards outweighed the fact it wasn’t part of your job description because you have always operated on a different job description than one prescribed merely by “work.”
Yours is a higher standard and one committed to people and place in a way many won’t ever understand and not enough people are likely to experience.
Each time you did this chore, you would come back into our office and say, beaming, “Coach, we’ve got the cleanest drains in the Northwest Conference!”
High standards for both human interaction and for organization. I remember the way you folded up your reflective window screen from your Subaru windshield, snapped the elastic bands securely around it, and placed it in the back seat any time we drove your car in the warm months. Repetition engenders precision. As long as you do things the right way every time. The best way you can.
Every signature you signed using either a credit card or ID as a ruler to achieve that straightedge bottom line. That predictably severe bottom line was as much your signature as your signature itself.
A flood of memories too bountiful to fully catalog.
Times we went to Flying Pie for lunch: countless.
Times you had them write Pioneer Swimming on the ticket as the name they should call out over the PA when our slices were up: countless.
And they did it, sometimes bemused or confused, sometimes with gusto. I guess it’s fitting this was one of our last times together. You and Jakey and I on a warm afternoon lunch date a while back.
Then there was sharing an office. Volumes of time, volumes of memories. We spent between five and seven days a week together for nearly seven years.
That is a lot of time.
A lot of shared stories, shared meals, shared laughs, fist bumps, inside jokes, ups, downs, challenges, and lively conversation. It’s fitting the astounding and committed young woman who now resides at your old desk is also more tidy than I am, also great with organization and—dare I say—likes (mostly) the intricacy and meticulousness of tracking all our gear and managing the spreadsheets. Big shoes to fill. And it’s lucky for me to work with someone who loves this program as much as you and wants as much for these college students as you.
I always knew you were a better man than I and told you as much on more than one occasion. We didn’t agree on everything and we didn’t need to. Our big picture view was almost always the same and there were invariably our key tenets of hard work and responsibility and doing things the right way. We began from that shared understanding and worked well from that beginning.
Early on, you asked me if you could keep your Olympic torch in the office. Who could turn that down? You had your own Olympic torch. It was about the coolest thing ever.
More than once we circled a team of Pioneers up and you told the story of your torch and passed it around, swimmer to swimmer, letting each person feel its heft and hopefully imbue a little of its significance on their own psyche. The whole time we did this, I held my breath, watching this glass and steel artifact of a great honor you received pass from hand to hand above our hard tile deck. I knew how much that torch meant to you and that what meant even more was sharing a small part of its magic and meaning with as many people as possible. One more way for you to touch lives.
Magic and meaning is nothing if it is not shared.
You applied for the coaching job during my first week or two at L&C. You sent a few names of coaches who had been instrumental in my own swimming life and suggested they might be good references for you. Of course they were.
We met in person a couple times and talked about the sport and the team. I felt as much like you were interviewing us as the other way around. Which all makes sense when I take into account the high standard you hold yourself to. You would only join a team that made that ideal a focus, as well.
I wish you could see Jakey grow up. We used to call him Jakey B. and you used to tell people, “He’s Jakey B…. You know, like Jay-Z.”
Yes, Coach, I know.
Jakey loved that lunch at Flying Pie. After we left he kept asking, “What’s Coach Miller doing?”
“I don’t know buddy, he probably went home. Did you have fun at lunch?”
“Uh huh!” He talked about you all afternoon.
The memories tumble back in no particular order while I look through old photos. One picture I have is of you playing Noah Boring in ping pong next door in the Hall of Champions. You could give him an actual game, more than the rest of us. You are surprisingly good at ping pong. I won’t say for your age. I won’t say for having to wear dark sunglasses indoors. Which means it shouldn’t really be a surprise. You are a competitor in every way and there’s no reason that shouldn’t include ping pong.
I used to say to my wife that, given your energy level and coaching endurance post-cancer and in your fifties, I couldn’t imagine anyone keeping up with you in your youth. I still can’t.
You are effective and committed and above all passionate about the people in your life. Everyone you met fell under the umbrella of your care. It wasn’t just our athletes. You connected PE students in your beginning swimming class with your contacts at OHSU. You helped at events all across campus and were present more than most full time staff.
You are all in.
We could all be so lucky to live our lives as all in as you.
Hanging over my front door in our living room is the wooden sign you and the team had made for Heather and I several years ago. The Fantz Family. Plus the date we were married. Family is important to you. I remember all your Thanksgivings you told me about, 56 family members in one place together one year and 48 another. I’m not sure about the exact numbers, but I know you would be if I could ask you. My memory is for names and spelling and pronunciation. Yours had the strongest command of dates and times and data. It made us a good pair.
I’ve been scanning through eight plus years of your emails. You know, just for kicks. Your penchant for incredible detail and specificity comes rushing back to me. And it reminds me of your voice mails. They would start something like, “Hey Coach, it’s Michael and I’m calling you at 9:53am on Tuesday March 6th.”
Except sometimes you would pause to come up with the exact date. No matter how long the pause, I knew you would complete that date stamp before moving into what we’ll call the meat of the message. Because details are important.
Your love of Diet Pepsi.
If a restaurant only had Diet Coke, you would sometimes decline and just drink water. I loved those moments.
Bus trips. The time you left your medication at home, got our driver to take you to a late-night pharmacy in the middle of nowhere because those drugs were important, and later found your black med kit wedged in an out of the way shadow of the bus, there all along. Better safe than sorry. You laughed about it and that allowed me to laugh, too.
The Pioneer Swimming sign you taped into the front window on many a bus trip just to let the world know. Balloons and signs on hotel doors at the Conference Championship. I always got a sign on my door, too.
Almost every part of my day contains the pleasant minutiae for charming up memories of you. Sitting in Starbucks with my coffee and I remember one of your go-to drink orders: Venti Soy Latte, no whip, no foam, and half a pump of vanilla.
You’re one of the few people I know who still send e-cards. Some were, of course, the e-card reminders about setting clocks back. But, there is the one I just reread to my son for his second birthday. It shows a pair of tiny feet in some very man-sized and shiny black dress shoes. After the birthday message to Jakey is a “P.S. Someday you will fit into your dad’s shoes.”
I think he will.
And there was a Veteran’s Day e-card dated a year ago last week. You’re the only one who has given me a Veteran’s Day card. It reminds me how you had a route you would drive on such holidays leaving flowers at a range of family graves around a few counties. It was important to you to remember.
How does one person hold so much caring, so much good?
You brought a love of the sport to your swim coaching and, more importantly, a passion for helping people. You cared deeply about serving students and about supporting them as they grew into the best adults possible. You were there for broken hands and broken hearts. For the hard days and the hard knocks of life. And for the many, many more good times, too. Thousands of people across generations count their one and only Coach Miller as a central and essential figure in their life and growth. Please know I’m one of them.
All of this is to say…
I wish I could have told you about hosing down the pool deck.
I said the words in my head when I finished, when I had cleaned out and scooped up the hair and gunk and debris as you had countless times before. I laughed out loud alone on the pool deck, the hose still running, a handful of gray pool deck detritus, my shoes and socks drenched.
“Coach, we’ve got the cleanest drains in the Northwest Conference!”
There are big legacies and small ones. You leave innumerable examples of both. Countless of us lucky enough to know you. I am glad to have played a role in your being in the lives of so many of our swimmers here and this whole Pioneer family. For what you taught them, but more so for the example you set of how to live a life.
For how we can all live our lives if we are willing to care enough, give enough, show enough of our humanity to those we meet.
You are that rare breed of human who is both a big ideas person and a doing-the-work-every-day connector who gets to know people on a true, direct, personal level.
I am lucky. We are all lucky for the time and humanity you shared with us.
I will miss you.